Retirement takes a bit of getting used to. But it certainly allows some time and space to think. Precious time. Time that can otherwise be hard to find in a world that is moving far faster than is good for any of us.
And so I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about some of the things I got wrong over the course of my policing career. The sorts of things we’re not always very good at talking about.
Here are a handful of them – some from when I started out and some that are much more recent.
I. Learning the Hard Way
I worked damn hard when I started out as a PC. That was a good thing. Less good was my response to the realisation that I didn’t have it all worked out from the start; that my policing life was only just beginning; that I didn’t actually know much about anything.
You see, I was desperate to do well. So desperate in fact, that when I didn’t get things perfectly right first time round – and when kind and far more experienced colleagues pointed out the inevitable errors of my ways – it felt like a particularly painful kind of failure.
Back then, I didn’t understand that I had absolutely everything to learn – and absolutely nothing to lose by acknowledging the fact.
I spent the rest of my career working alongside some of the most brilliant people you could ever hope to meet. And the more I watched and listened to them, the better I got at my job.
II. The Meaning of Courage
You don’t have to look very far in policing to find spectacular examples of truly extraordinary physical courage. Think of Wayne Marques and Charlie Guenigault on London Bridge. Think of Keith Palmer.
During my career, I don’t think I was ever called upon to be especially brave – but I tried to do my bit. I remember my first blue light run and my first siege. I remember my first pub fight and the first time I called for urgent assistance. I remember the first time I faced a man with a knife. And I hope I was made of the right stuff.
But there is another kind of courage. And I lacked it in my early years.
It’s a kind of moral courage – a willingness to stand up for what’s right when faced with things that aren’t.
Like the time my black colleague was the target of a casual racist remark from another officer and I didn’t speak up for him – or challenge the bigot in blue. Like the time when my partner fell asleep when we were meant to be on patrol and I didn’t dare wake him. Or the various times when corners were cut because people couldn’t be bothered to do things properly.
In most cases, it was relatively low-level stuff – there were no resultant miscarriages of justice or anything else of that sort – but I had my lines in the sand and I allowed them to blur. I found that it was easier to stay quiet than it was to speak up.
I didn’t want to rock the boat. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to fit in – to be accepted.
But silence is collusion. And I needed to learn what it really meant to be brave.
III. Power & Authority
I also needed to learn what it meant to serve.
Here’s a small story from a book called Blue:
“On another morning, I’m out in uniform with the rest of my team and we’re taking part in a road check on Millbank, a busy main road next to the River Thames. We’re using our powers under the Road Traffic Act to stop a succession of vehicles in the hunt for possible offences. I’m still finding my feet as a young copper and I still want to impress my colleagues. I stop a car, glance at the out-of-date tax disc displayed in the lower corner of the windscreen and begin to give the driver a proper dressing down. I am pompous and condescending – lapsing into that unpleasant stereotype of an overbearing police officer lacking the maturity or the professionalism to use their powers wisely or well. My behaviour finds me out immediately.
The driver looks at me with an expression of anxious bewilderment. ‘But officer,’ he says quietly, ‘it’s not out of date.’
My heart drops and I check the front of the car to see that he’s absolutely right. I have made a complete fool of myself. I apologise unreservedly. There’s nothing else I can do and I feel both horrified and ashamed – not that I’ve been caught out, but that I could have behaved that way in the first place.
The thing is, it’s just not who I am. The vast majority of police officers I will work with as the years go by are not like that either. In my mind, later the same day, I listen back to the exchange with the poor driver and promise myself that I will never speak to anyone in that way again. There are times as a police officer when you need to be forceful – when there is no time to be mucking around or mincing words. But there is never any excuse for being an idiot.”
A small story told to make a big point. Society is entitled to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else. And there were times when I lacked the wisdom or the experience to understand that fact.
IV. The Number Chase
I don’t think I ever completely swallowed the performance pill, but there were definite occasions when I was guilty of joining the witless corporate number chase. I have no problem with accountability – but I do have a problem with getting caught up in the things that get counted, at the expense of the things that really count.
Every crime matters to every victim – rightly so – but not every crime is equal.
Domestic Violence has to matter more than shoplifting. Knife crime has to matter more than criminal damage. Any crime that has a child or vulnerable adult as its victim has to matter more than one that doesn’t.
Everything can’t be a priority – more so now than ever before – and policing needs to deal first with the most vulnerable, the most harmful and the most dangerous.
I didn’t always get that balance right.
V. Leading Upwards
It turns out that the people in charge don’t always do the right thing.
We need to get better at allowing people to make honest, human mistakes. But we also need to get better at calling out behaviour that is just wrong – as long as we do it like grown ups: honestly, professionally and constructively.
It comes back to that question of courage.
There were occasions in my career when I stepped back from challenging a boss, for fear of the potential personal consequences. Like that Aaron Sorkin line from the film ‘The American President’:
“I was so busy keeping my job, that I forgot to do my job.”
It took me a while to learn that, sometimes, doing my job meant standing up and speaking up regardless of the risks involved in doing so. And that’s not always easy.
VI. People & Process
Policing is about people.
But, all too often, process gets in the way.
The pressure to get stuff done – reports and forms and returns and briefings and boxes to tick and the apparent urgency of ultimately unimportant things – can prevent us from doing the things that actually matter.
I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: it’s people who save lives; it’s people who find lost children and comfort grieving mothers; it’s people who protect the terrified and confront the terrifying. It’s people who, every now and again, pay the greatest price of all.
Policing is people.
And it took me a while to establish that, when it comes down to a straightforward choice between doing the process thing and doing the people thing, people need to come first every single time.
VII. Oxygen Masks
Then there was the mistake that brought an earlier-than-planned end to my policing career.
Five years ago, I broke.
I used to think that I was invincible, that I could throw myself into every personal and professional challenge that came my way – and that I would always have the necessary physical and psychological resources to draw on. As a result, I didn’t look after myself as well as I ought to have done.
Over time, work and pressure and trauma and strain and duty and responsibility and life all caught up with me. And I broke.
Policing is a heck of a job. I love it with all my heart and soul – but it’s still a heck of a job. And I don’t think that we have properly stopped to consider the very personal consequences for officers and staff of the things that we as a society ask and expect them to do. In particular, I don’t think we have ever paused to think about the overwhelming impact on our people of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma.
The folk I worked with for more than twenty-five years are heroes. And we need to do a far better job of looking after them. We also need to let them do a far better job of looking after themselves.
A brief and simple analogy about airline safety videos.
I suspect most of us will have sat through one of them at some time or another. They tend to be unerringly dull, but I want you to pay closer attention next time you see one. In particular, I want you to absorb the part that describes the moment when the oxygen masks drop down from the roof of the plane.
The instructions are absolutely clear.
Even if I have my youngest daughter sitting next to me, I am told to fit my own mask before I make any attempt to fit hers. And that’s not an act of selfishness; it’s an act of good sense. Because it turns out that my ability to help my child is entirely dependent on my ability to help myself.
I’m no use to her if I can’t breathe.
As in safety videos, so in life – and most definitely in policing. Police officers and staff are helpers. It’s what they do; it’s part of what makes them extraordinary. But it turns out that their ability to help anyone else is entirely dependent on their ability to help themselves.
And on our willingness to help them.
Policing in this country is under greater pressure and strain than at any previous point in my lifetime. More so now than ever, we need to look after the precious men and women who stand on the thin blue line.